100 Years on the Road

The Traveling Salesman in American Culture

Timothy B. Spears

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February 27, 1997
320 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
82 b/w illus.
ISBN: 9780300070668
Paper

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"Kiss the children and sister Minnie for me. And tell her whatever she does, never to marry a traveling man, they are the most unhappy men on earth."—E. Barton Martin to his wife, Julia, April 6, 1877

"I have maid plenty of money since I've bin off the farm & don't have to work half so hard. . . . Come out and see the World."—William Hutton to his brother Lineus, October 11, 1884

Even today, in Death of a Salesman and The Music Man, the traveling salesman is an intriguing, almost mythic figure. This lively and vividly illustrated account—the first in-depth study of the traveling salesman, or "drummer"—investigates his role in American culture during his heyday, between 1830 and 1920.

Drawing on such sources as diaries, advice manuals, autobiographies, and trade journals, Timothy Spears shows how traveling salesmen shaped the customs of life on the road, established the foundations of "scientific salesmanship," and helped to develop modern consumer culture. Spears reconstructs the cultural history of face-to-face sales during this period, describing the nature of traveling life, the development of strategies for selling to the trade rather than door-to-door, and the problematic relationship of the salesman to society—first as the agent of an emergent, intrusive market and later as a target for critics of "vulgar" commercialism. Throughout, Spears offers original and persuasive readings of works by Arthur Miller, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and Eudora Welty and illuminates other cultural representations of the traveling salesman.

Timothy B. Spears is assistant professor of American literature and civilization and director of the American Civilization Major at Middlebury College. 

"An important contribution to our understanding of the influence of the market on American life. Lively and well written, it successfully integrates literary text and social-economic context."—Karen Halttunen, author of Confidence Men and Painted Ladies

"Anyone curious about the origins and evolution of this ubiquitous American symbol should be thankful, for the telling of the story uncovers multiple aspects critical to the development of modern retail commerce. Practical considerations were a major part; limited transportation and isolated communities drove the need to link supply and demand. Beyond these basics is another story, the detail and daily life of those in the profession, illuminated here with personal anecdotes, local color, and the joys and sorrows of such a life on the road."—Kim Long, Bloomsbury Review

"The subject of everything from dirty jokes to great drama, the traveling salesman has been mythicized in U.S. popular culture. Now Spears takes a serious but nonetheless fascinating look at the role of such salesmen in shaping today's consumer culture and in contributing to the lore—and lure—of 'the road.' Spears' observations and insights are wonderfully enhanced by trade journal advertisements, old photographs, and excerpts from diaries, turn-of-the-century selling manuals, and the works of such authors as Arthur Miller, Eudora Welty, and Theodore Dreiser. This splendid book should find a place in academic and popular collections alike."—Booklist

"100 Years on the Road paints a vivid portrait of the nature and impact of the economic and moral watershed in American economic development that was crossed first of all by the traveling salesman."—John A. Agnew, Business History Review

"Well-written and richly illustrated, [this book] is a masterful contribution to the subject and a work of considerable importance within American business and cultural history."—Clark Davis, Business Library Review

"Spear's elegy on the world of the traveler."—Chronicle of Higher Education

"In mapping out the changing role of the traveling salesman in America's economy and its culture, Spears has told us a good deal not only about where we are, but about the road that brought us here."—Chris Rasmussen, In These Times

"The author insightfully documents traveling salesmen's beliefs and practices and how their behavior was translated into popular culture. . . . Spears's in-depth critiques . . . excellently depict how traveling salesmen permeated everyday life and cultural expression."—James M. Mayo, Journal of American History

"100 Years on the Road is a fascinating study of that venerable institution, the traveling salesman. Spears gives us the traveling man from many angles—literary depictions of him, folklore, the history of the profession, day-to-day life on the road, photographs and lithographs of salesmen and their world. . . . This is a fine and imaginative work, and an important blending of good historical research, literary analysis, and cultural studies. It is interdisciplinary in the best tradition, and the photographs are superb."—Elliot J. Gorn, Journal of Urban History

"An uncommon look at the salesman as business frontiersman and cultural icon from the post-Civil War years to the first quarter of the twentieth century….A well-documented and well-illustrated work."—Herbert Mitgang, Philadelphia Inquirer

"Just rifle through the pages of this book and the stirring representations of the drummer in print photographs from days long past will evoke the rich tableau of the traveling salesman's contribution to American history. Read the book and you will gain a much greater understanding of the myths and realities that led to the modern conception of what it means to sell for a living."—Selling Power

"A fascinating book. . . . We can hardly wish for a more erudite history of the men who carried commerce and urban culture beyond the city, taking with them both the dreams and the materials of the emerging consumer culture."—Pamela Walker Laird, Technology and Culture

"[A] wide-ranging cultural history, compiled from reminiscences, trade magazines, popular novels and plays. . . . Timothy Spears's study is a fitting obituary on a once proud if maligned occupation."—Harold Perkin, Times Literary Supplement

"Spears zealously dives into a previously unplumbed trove of salesman lore, examining everything from economic shifts in marketing to salesman-spawned pop-culture effluvia. . . . The result is a secret history cracked open, a window raised on a lively, often seamy past."—Katherine Dieckmann, Voice Literary Supplement